- Podcast Episode 14: Perfume Bootleggers in St. Paul? (Primary)
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- Type: Sound Created on: 2018 Creator: Neil Silberman and Angela Labrador
- Coherit Associates LLC Publication date: 2018
- Copyright License (e.g. Creative Commons)
- city dwellers
- social norms
- hygiene products
The old hospital had already moved to its new location—and into its modern high-rise complex in a better section of town. But the tight cluster of Victorian buildings that represented the city’s foremost medical institution would have to be demolished to make way for a new construction on the site. This was how it almost always went with urban renewal in the 1960s—sweeping old buildings away. Some of it was done with a wrecking ball, some of it by hand. The work was dusty and dirty as a demo crew wielding sledgehammers started smashing down the plaster and lath walls of an old hospital storage building, which had been emptied of all its equipment and medical supplies.
But the wrecking crew unexpectedly found something very strange, something that had remained a secret for many, many years. As the workers broke through an interior wall of the storage building, they discovered a hidden chamber. And when the dust of the demolition finally settled, they were able to peer into the dark space behind the false wall. They saw that it was filled with seventy glass gallon jugs, still packed in carboard boxes printed with the name of a local company—and labeled as perfume.
Gallon jugs of perfume in a hospital? What could possibly be their medical purpose? And why were they walled up and hidden? Not pausing to consider these questions, the chief of the demolition crew saw an immediate opportunity. He called a dealer in antiques to see if these oversized perfume containers were worth anything and would he be willing to buy them? The dealer expressed some interest, paid the crew for the boxes, and took at least a few of the perfume jugs away. But that was not the end of the matter. For those jugs proved to be an intriguing clue to a decades-old historical mystery from the infamous era of Prohibition.
Welcome to Places of Legend, a podcast that digs into places with stories. Stories that are shared in schoolyards, on sidewalks, in urban legends, age-old superstitions, and internet memes. It’s far from the history that is usually taught in schoolbooks. Let’s call it Cultural Heritage with a weird and unexpected twist. The legends can be scary. They can be hilarious or grotesque, and the truth behind them is almost always hidden. Places of Legend offers up stories that pull back the curtain at famous historic sites around the country—historic places with very different stories to tell.
I’m Angela Labrador and with my colleague and author Neil Silberman, we hope to turn your ideas about America’s places of legend upside down. In this episode, our Place of Legend is the site of the Old Ancker Hospital on the west side of St. Paul, Minnesota—a site now occupied by the block-like headquarters building of the St. Paul School System. But proud historical memories still cling to the place. Its story began in 1872 when the county’s Board of Control of Public Charities authorized the purchase of a 10 room mansion from the mayor of St. Paul—himself a physician, and established the city’s first public hospital. From 1883, under the direction of Dr. Arthur Ancker (after whom the hospital was later named) expansion was rapid. A nursing school, a tuberculous ward, a morgue and mortuary, a public dispensary, and additional wings for laboratories and separate women’s wards gained it the reputation of being the most advanced medical institution west of Chicago.
In the late 1800s, St. Paul was a city of many social causes and medical care was only one of them. Universal public education, racial equality, and women’s suffrage were among the goals of public meetings, political movements, and civic organizations supported by St. Paul’s rising middle class. Reform was in the air, and a new, more civilized society beckoned at the dawn of the twentieth century. Yet ironically, the most radical of the reform movements would have an unexpected effect. The long temperance crusade to fight alcohol and its destructive social consequences would unexpectedly transform St. Paul into a haven for gangsters and bootleggers of every kind.
Strangely enough, the city of St. Paul itself was founded in a dispute about liquor. This acrimonious duel between teetotalers and alcohol would reoccur throughout the city’s history until well into the twentieth century. The first European settlers were drawn to the area by the profitable trade in furs with the region’s native peoples. And French brandy, British rum, and American whisky were valuable commodities in this trade. Cutthroat competition between the traders increased the flow of alcohol to the area, and with it, rowdiness, listlessness, and other negative social effects. The commander of the first American fort in the vicinity banned the sale of alcohol by traders to Native Americans. But this prohibition was easily evaded by traders who set up their headquarters on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the eventual site of the city of St. Paul, which was beyond the reach of the military authorities.
As the settlement grew into a small city after the establishment of the Minnesota Territory, arriving migrants from New England—mainly moralistic farmers and shopkeepers—began to look at St. Paul’s boisterous population of workers, con-men, and ne’er-do-wells, and they did not like what they saw. The ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement were convinced that Demon Rum broke up families, provoked domestic abuse, and would lead to economic disaster for the city. But new waves of immigrants from Ireland and Germany who cherished their pubs and bierhalls, pushed back hard against the snooty women of the city’s upper classes and protected their right to drink vigorously.
But the drive to ban alcohol did not peter out – in fact, it reached new heights with the establishment of St. Paul’s chapter of the Anti-Saloon League in the 1890s. The Anti-Saloon League was perhaps America’s first aggressive political action committee who courted politicians and counted votes, instead of wasting their time preaching about morality. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Anti-Saloon League was among the most effective facets of the Progressive Movement—which sought direct government intervention in the brutal industrial economy including child labor laws, food regulations, work safety standards, and strict control over the availability of intoxicating drinks.
By the dawn of World War I, through the efforts of the Anti-Saloon League and sympathetic country officials, most of Minnesota had become legally “dry.” And while St.Paul had remained a bastion of beer gardens and barrooms, that too would soon change. The gradual restriction of alcoholic beverages among all members of the armed services, eventually gave way to a proposed Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject its jurisdiction.” And at midnight on January 17, 1920, with the ratification of this radical measure by more than two-thirds of the states, Prohibition arrived in St. Paul with the same force as in every city and hamlet across America.
Minnesota played a prominent role in the coming of Prohibition. While the Eighteenth Amendment established the principle of banning alcoholic beverages, specific legislation was required to enact the ban. A Minnesota congressman named Andrew Volstead from the western “dry” counties of the state worked closely with the leaders of the Anti-Saloon League to draft and promote the law. The resulting Volstead Act prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of any beverage containing more than the tiniest amounts of alcohol: half a percent of the total volume was the limit. Meanwhile, the government would issue permits to companies who would supply alcohol for scientific, industrial, and religious purposes. Although the law didn’t explicitly prohibit the consumption of alcohol, it did criminalize unpermitted alcohol distillation, thus cutting off all potential sources for legally obtaining liquor, except for a small loophole created by the IRS which allowed some homebrewing of fruit wine. In 1920, the notorious IRS Unit of Prohibition was established as a national law enforcement unit that, despite thousands of arrests and millions of gallons of liquor poured down sewers or entrusted to hospitals, proved unable to effectively discourage the country’s vast thirst for alcohol.
It didn’t take long for national criminal syndicates to step in to fill the demand. The Chicago bootleg empire of Al Capone is only the best known of hundreds. In every major city and many cities that were not so major, speakeasies did a roaring business, serving illegally brewed beer and distilled liquors, and cultivating a widespread flaunting of the law. St. Paul was notorious as among the “wettest” cities in the nation, despite the fact that the city’s many breweries and distilleries were forced to close down.
With the coming of Prohibition, the city’s liquor industry simply went underground. This was made immeasurably easier with the complicity and corruption of the municipal police. This cozy arrangement began years before with the notorious “Layover Agreement” established by the St. Paul chief of police. Any criminal living or arriving in the city was expected to notify the police force. In exchange for a pledge not to commit any serious crimes in the city limits and, more importantly, an under-the-table cash payment—they received protection from arrest and timely tip-offs about upcoming federal prohibition bureau raids. But unless someone knew about the arrangement and was willing to share a part of their profits with the corrupt police force, they were left out in the cold.
In St. Paul as throughout the nation, the constitutional ban on alcohol, which was intended as an act of moral improvement, turned out to be the basis of a golden age of criminality. It also paved the way for ever greater federal powers of surveillance and arrest of individual citizens for private behavior, far beyond any previous federal laws. Yet the wide net cast by zealous Prohibition law enforcement officers inevitably hauled in some innocent people who only appeared to be involved in the bootleg liquor industry. And such an unfortunate scenario may help solve the mystery of the 70 gallon-sized bottles of perfume stashed in the Ancker Hospital.
Arthur “Ted” Sinykin (se-NEE-kin) had a hard time keeping up with the more flamboyant members of his prominent St. Paul family. His older brother John was a wealthy cosmetics manufacturer and the first trainer of American seeing-eye dogs. A younger brother became a wealthy rancher in South Dakota and as champion rodeo star, became nationally famous as “Bronco Lou.” In the 1914 St. Paul City Directory Ted was listed as the proprietor of a liquor store. Six years later, the enactment of Prohibition would have forced him to close that business and would have endangered his livelihood.
There’s no record of what line of work Ted followed for the next five years, but there is reason to suppose that he worked for his elder brother’s successful cosmetics firm. When he again surfaces in the records in 1925, it is as the owner of the Nipola Products Company, a manufacturer of inexpensive perfumes and room deodorizers, which he incorporated two years later, because business was apparently so good. The Nipola Company received a federal license to obtain denatured alcohol to manufacture its line of fragrances. “Denatured” is a nice way of saying “poisoned.” Because the federal government wanted to ensure that industrial alcohol wasn’t recreationally consumed, it mandated that poisonous additives be included in the resulting product. But this didn’t much matter when it came to manufacturing cosmetic fragrances. No one was expecting people to try and drink perfume.
Ted Sinykin had a knack for marketing. Among the Nipola Company’s most popular products was a fragrance called “Lucky Lindy” that capitalized on the tide of adulation for Charles Lindbergh and his daring 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight. With the sales slogan “The Essence of Luck,” the promotional copy touted its imported French essences that were dissolved in alcohol and bottled in Saint Paul. The ads boasted that Lucky Lindy was sold in all sizes “at leading drug and department stores.” Nipola also produced fragrances with exotic names such as “Ramona” and “Pagan Princess,” but its unrivalled best seller had the more prosaic name, “Swee-tone.”
Sold in much larger containers, Swee-tone was meant as an all-purpose air freshener that “gives a delightful odor, refreshes the premises, and is a deodorizer and germicide as well.” It was claimed to remove cooking odors; prevent moths; kill damp, moldy smells; perfume the bathroom; destroy body odors; remove gasoline smells from your car; and take the place of bath salts. What more could you ask for? The Nipola Company proudly claimed that SWEE-TONE was used from coast to coast by theatres, hotels, dance halls, restaurants, cafes, cabarets, bus stations, taxicab companies, transit companies, hospitals, drug and department stores, and all public institutions and homes.
It was later claimed that these products were never meant to be sold all over the country, but the evidence seems to prove that accusation wrong. Serious perfume collectors list them in catalogues of historic fragrances, and colorful vintage store display cards for Lucky Lindy and Ramona are still posted for sale to collectors on Ebay by vendors on both the east and west coast.
By 1929, Ted Sinykin was at last succeeding and he expanded his business premises, putting his wife Betty on the payroll and hiring Carl Amenrud of Minneapolis as business manager. Nipola was a thriving business—at least until a horrifying legal bombshell was dropped.
On February 11, 1930, the headlines of newspapers across the country screamed out the news of the largest bootleg alcohol bust since prohibition began. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern Illinois District in Chicago, George Johnson, announced the indictment of more than 150 individuals and 30 companies from coast to coast for violating the Prohibition laws. At last, Johnson declared, law enforcement had struck at the head of what he believed was a vast national conspiracy. The previous July, Prohibition agents, presumably with their tommy guns at the ready, had raided a warehouse in Chicago in which millions of gallons of alcohol had been found. According to the Minneapolis Tribune "prohibition agents discovered thousands of sub-standard toilet products capable of being redistilled into pure grain alcohol.” But more valuable than the stash of contraband alcohol were the receipts and records that the prohibition agents found.
The alleged ringleader of the syndicate was not a mob boss but a chemist. He was identified as Anastassoff Srebren, "a Bulgarian perfume chemist of international repute.” Srebren had reportedly devised a technique of extracting essential oils from perfumes and toilet waters, to produce safely drinkable alcohol—a chemical process with obvious profit potential. The warehouse files were filled with shipping records and receipts from virtually every perfume and cologne company in the Midwest. All were included in the indictment. The Minneapolis Tribune broke the shocking news with the headline: LINK TWIN CITIES TO RUM RING. Two Minnesota men had been named in the Prohibition era’s most sweeping indictment. And one of the accused was none other than Mr. Arthur “Ted” Sinykin, president of the Nipola Perfume company.
When informed of the charges by a Minneapolis reporter, Ted’s wife Betty expressed her utter disbelief that her husband could possibly be involved in such a thing. The criminal act that the Nipola company was charged with was the illegal transfer of 5,000 gallons of what the indictment identified as “toilet water” to the Bourday Company of Minneapolis the previous June. While this information had come from the seized files in the Chicago warehouse, there is good reason to believe that the alleged transaction never occurred.
Thomas Braun of the Minnesota Historical Society investigated the case and found no evidence that Sinykin ever conducted business with the Bourday company or its owner. In fact, no such name or company appeared in the Minneapolis Business Directory for 1929. And the Bourday Company was never named in the indictment. By then, Nipola had become a familiar trade name in the low-end perfume business and “toilet water”—particularly the kind of highly diluted toilet water mentioned in the indictment was not a product in its line.
Almost drowned out in the roar of publicity and shock of the scandal was the contention of S.B. Qvale (QUAIL), the local head of Prohibition enforcement in St. Paul that the inclusion of the Nipola Company in the Chicago indictment might have been a mistake. Qvale stated that he had only recently checked the books of the company and had found no irregularities. He even went so far as to suggest that the use of the name might have been a cover for a transfer of alcohol by the Chicago mob. Indeed, Ted Sinykin himself adamantly denied the charges and entered a plea of “not guilty” when the case was finally brought before a judge in June 1932. And the government’s case was so shoddy that the same presiding federal judge in Chicago abruptly dismissed all charges in January of 1934.
So how and why did why the gallon-sized bottles of Lucky Lindy and Swee-tone perfume end up in the hidden storeroom in the Ancker hospital in St. Paul? One possibility was that Sinykin was engaged in a conspiracy with someone in the hospital who distilled the perfume into drinkable booze. Yet if that were the case, why would the glass jugs be inaccessibly sealed behind a false wall? A second possibility is that they were the result of a police raid on the Nipola Company premises and were brought to the hospital for disposal as the Volstead Act prescribed. But why were they never emptied and the glass jugs destroyed?
We can never know for sure why the Nipola products remained hidden, but the samples recovered from the Ancker hospital storeroom offered little physical evidence of of Sinykin’s guilt. In sharp contrast to the “sub-standard” toilet water found in the Chicago warehouse that could be distilled into drinkability with little effort, chemical tests on the recovered Nipola mixtures proved them to be quite normal— not sub-standard—perfumes. “If anything,” the modern researcher Thomas Braun noted, “they could be considered quite strong.” Removing the heavy concentration of essential fragrances from the base alcohol would probably not be feasible.
Yet the accusations of bootlegging against Ted Sinykin had a lasting effect. After the announcement of the indictment, the Nipola Company remained in business, but it never completely recovered from its widely publicized shame. As late as September 1931, a full year and a half after the indictment, the Nipola Company was still hiring “demonstrators” to promote its cosmetic line in department stores. But it disappeared from city directories after 1934. By 1940, long after Prohibition had ended, Ted Sinykin was back to selling liquor and had apparently abandoned his career in perfumery. At the time of his death in St. Paul in 1976, his terse obituary indicated that he had become an almost invisible presence in an otherwise prominent St. Paul family.
Ironically, the end of Prohibition in 1933 eventually led to the end of the “Layover Agreement” that had made St. Paul a notorious hangout for criminals and put an end to the rampant corruption in the city’s police force. With the flow of profit from bootleg liquor suddenly shut off by the re-legalization of alcoholic beverages by the 21st Amendment, the city’s underworld increasingly turned to kidnapping, bank robberies, and other violent crime. Yet the arrival of agents of the newly reorganized FBI in Saint Paul in 1935, and the personal visit of its publicity hungry director J. Edgar Hoover, spelled the beginning of the end of the layover agreement.
Now under surveillance by a higher authority, the local police officials could no longer tip off mobsters or accept a share of their take. The layover agreement ended with the conviction or resignation of many of the city's police force. The old guard was gone, and the new guard made sure that Police Chief O'Connor's corrupt pay-off arrangement was dead.
This was just another sign that the Prohibition experiment, though failing to rid the nation of Demon Rum, nevertheless accomplished a far-reaching change. As the social historian Lisa McGirr has noted, the common image of Prohibition as a failed puritanical experiment conceals its far-reaching significance. “Even with its vast corruption, inefficacy, and insufficient funding,” McGirr wrote, “Prohibition marked the birth of a qualitatively new and enduring role of the federal state in crime control…” Indeed, the effort to enforce selective social policies over the country’s entire population resulted in a level of federal investigation, legal harassment and selective prosecution, and a policy of mass incarceration on a scale that that the United States had never experienced before.
The seventy jugs of cheap perfume discovered in the Ancker hospital are material relics of that era. Even though the mystery of how and why they got there may never be solved with certainty, they bear witness to a eeriely portentous period. A time when political pressure groups succeeded at imposing their will on public behavior, and new forms of government surveillance emerged that are still with us today in the covert domestic investigations of federal law enforcement agencies such as the NSA, FBI, ICE, ATF, and the DEA.
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Places of Legend, a podcast in which we explore historic sites where the forgotten and unexpected meeting of past and present offers a new kind of heritage experience. Our aim is to share our curiosity about out-of-the-way places and forgotten events. And we invite you to visit our website at placesoflegend.com where you can find maps, photographs, and links to further information about the sites we explore and the music heard in each show.
In our next episode, we’ll sail with the great explorer Henry Hudson in search of a Northwest Passage to the riches of Asia through the frigid body of saltwater in northern Canada still known as Hudson’s Bay. Hudson’s voyages along the east coast of North America and up the river that also bears his name are generally viewed as pioneering triumphs. But we’ll present a very different side of Hudson’s character in the tale of his last, fateful mission that ended with terror, violence, and mutiny.
Until then, thanks for listening. And we look forward to joining you in discovering more places of legend, available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and on our website at placesoflegend.com.